Sunday, July 26, 2009

Political manipulation

These days the term "media bias" is thrown around a lot when it comes to politics. We hear of reporters being "in the tank" and about planted questions and personal agendas.

Many reporters start out being objective and often fall prey to their own personal feelings. And sometimes you just meet a politician who charms you, who makes you feel as though he or she really cares and can change the world.

And most of the time it's part of the game.

I'd like to warn you guys that given the chance, politicians will use you like Kleenex and throw you away if you let them.

Let's turn back the clock back to when I was a young reporter assigned to cover a school board meeting. As we were setting up, one of the members wandered over to say hello. She told us, "When I give you the signal, the (expletive) is going to hit the fan." She then put two fingers on her face in a "V" shape so we'd know the signal.

Sure enough, about halfway through the meeting she gave us the signal. The photog swung his camera around and focused on her just as she unloaded with the best sound bite of the day. Yep, it hit the fan alright, as a great argument ensued between board members. I went back to the station beaming that I had some great stuff and of course focused on the exchange in my package.

By the time I got home I wasn't feeling so proud, as the realization hit me. I'd been used by a politician. She'd gotten exactly what she wanted; not only getting her chosen soundbite on air, but appearing to be a friend of the media by "helping us out."

On another occasion I was a brand new reporter in town and found an invitation on my desk for a "media appreciation dinner." I didn't really read the invite carefully, but several other reporters were going, so I figured it would be fun and a good way to meet the other reporters in town. I didn't find out till later that the dinner had been paid for by a local politician.

After that I got real careful when dealing with any politician. I wanted a reputation of being fair, and tried my best to keep my relationships professional. Over the years I grew to admire one particular politician, but I never held back on tough questions. I think he honestly respected me more for it.

Point is, most of these politicians have only one goal when dealing with the media, and that's controlling it. They'll make life easy for you, act like your best friend, maybe get a speeding ticket fixed for you. Don't fall for it.

When the time comes to ask a question of a politician, ask the toughest one you can think of. They may not like the question, but they'll respect you for it.

And so will the viewers.

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